Notes from Miscellaneous Writings

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Khenpo Shenga

Khenpo Shenpen Nangwa

Notes from Miscellaneous Writings

by Khenchen Shenpen Nangwa

In the explanation of any treatise, there are two parts: 1) an explanation of certain preliminary points preceding the actual explanation and 2) the actual explanation of the text itself.

As soon as the preliminaries stages have been completed, when embarking on the actual explanation of the text, there is first the meaning of the title, beginning with “In the language of India…” and so on. In this regard, although in the past some Tibetan scholars with a fondness for elaboration have explained the term ‘India’ (rgya gar) as a derivative term,[1] on this occasion we will dispense with such elaboration.

As the saying goes:[2]

Śrāvastī, Sāketa, Campaka,
Vārānasī, Vaiśāli,
And Rājagṛha—these six
Are understood to be the major towns.

As the text indicates, the term for India, i.e, rgya gar, was coined out of sheer imagination to refer to the area of these six major towns. Although the inhabitants of this country have various languages, there is a well-known division into four major languages based on the texts of drama composed by various scholars:

Sanskrit, the ‘beautifully constructed’, which is the language of the gods,
Apabhraṃśa, the language of secret signs,
Prākrit, the common or corrupted language,[3] and
Paiśācika, the language of flesh-eating demons or spirits.

At this point one should say: “In the best of these languages, Saṃskṛta, the ‘beautifully constructed’ language of the gods, the title of this treatise is as follows….” and then relate the Sanskrit terms to their Tibetan equivalents and briefly explain the meaning of the title.

The Sanskrit title is provided mainly to demonstrate the Indian origin of the teaching, so that people will have confidence in it and teach, study and practice its contents. Providing the Sanskrit also creates some affinity for the language, allows its blessings to infuse the mind, and causes us to remember the kindness of the translators.

Concerning the need for naming things in general, it is said:

If things were not given names,
The world would be bewildered.
So Lord Buddha, skilled in means,
Applies names to phenomena.

This being so, someone with the keenest spiritual faculties will easily understand the entire meaning of a text from beginning to end merely by seeing its title, rather like when a skilled doctor checks a patient's pulse. For someone of middling spiritual capacity, the title indicates the category to which a text belongs, like a military badge on a soldier’s uniform. For people of lesser spiritual capacity a title makes a text easier to find, just like a label on a medicine bottle.

There are several ways of coming up with a name for a text: sometimes a name is given as a description of the text's subject matter or style, sometimes as a metaphor, and so on. Among these, one explains which is relevant in the current context, saying, “On this occasion…” and so on.

As regards the homage, this might be what is called the ‘homage of royal decree’ or ‘the homage identifying the piṭaka’. The reference here is to the decree passed during the reign of the Dharma king Lord Tri Ralpachen when there was a revision of all the earlier Tibetan translations of classical Indian texts from the time of the former ancestral kings. At that time, as it it says in the Two-Part Grammatical Guidelines,[4] it was decreed that any text belonging to the vinaya itself or to its category should begin with, “Homage to the Omniscient One!” Any sūtra or text of that category should begin with, “Homage to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas!” And any abhidharma text or text belonging to that category should begin with, “Homage to Mañjuśrī!” This type of homage is called either ‘the homage of royal decree’ or ‘the homage identifying the piṭaka’, which are simply two names for the same thing.

The translator’s homage is the eulogy to the buddhas and bodhisattvas which translators offered before translating an Indian work into Tibetan. There are various reasons for these words of homages, such as ensuring that no obstacles would occur during the translation or ensuring that the translation would be completed.

There are also what are known as the four of purpose and so on, which must precede any treatise. These are of three types: the four of purpose and so on as they apply in plain speech, the four as they apply in talk of purpose and connection, and the four as they apply in the body of a treatise.

First, the four of purpose and so on in plain speech are applicable to all coherent statements. For example, in the expression “Fetch some water!” the subject is water; the immediate purpose is for someone to fetch water; the ultimate purpose is to quench one’s thirst through drinking the water; and the connection is the relationship between these elements.

Secondly, there are the four of purpose and so on in talk of purpose and connection. Here, the subject is the four of purpose and so on within the body of the treatise; the immediate purpose is that, upon hearing this, intellectuals develop curiosity, and those with duller faculties feel conviction; the ultimate purpose is that, based on this, they study the treatise; and the relationship between these is the connection.

Thirdly, there are the four of purpose and so on in the body of a treatise. The subject matter is whatever is taught in the treatise, such as the stages and paths; the immediate purpose is to understand the meaning of this; the connection is the way that the treatise and purpose are related as method and outcome; and the ultimate purpose, or ‘purpose of the purpose’, is that through the treatise one will ultimately attain enlightenment.

| Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2005, revised 2018. (First published on


Tibetan Editions

gzhan phan chos kyi snang ba. Zhal gdams ’bel gtam gyi skor. Rewalsar, Distt. Mandi, H.P., India: Zigar Drukpa Kargyud Institute, 1985, pp. 42–46 (21b–23b)

______. "bstan bcos 'chad tshul/" in gsung 'bum/ gzhan phan chos kyi snang ba/. 6 vols. dkar mdzes bod rigs rang skyong khul/ sde dge rdzong / rdzong sar khams bye'i slob gling /: rdzong sar khams bye'i slob gling /, 2004. (BDRC W1PD2074) Vol. 6: 318–322

Secondary Sources

Bayer, Achim. The Life and Works of mKhan-po gZhan-dga' (1871–1927): rDzogs-chen Master and Educational Reformer of Eastern Tibet. (Hamburg Buddhist Studies 11) Freiburg: Projekt Verlag, 2019.

Nance, Richard F. Speaking for Buddhas: Scriptural Commentary in Indian Buddhism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Version: 2.2-20220112

  1.  According to the Tibetan Buddhist theory of linguistics, names can either be non-derivatives coined through ‘sheer imagination’ (‘dod rgyal gyi ming), without any literal, etymological basis, or they can be derivatives (rjes grub), such as the word for Buddha (sangs rgyas) which consists of two syllables meaning ‘purified’ and ‘developed’.  ↩

  2.  From the Vinayakārika (Tib. ‘dul ba tshig le’ur byas pa) by Viśākadeva (Tib. sa ga’i lha).  ↩

  3.  Apabhraṃśa is often described as the corrupted language, and Prākrit simply as the common language.  ↩

  4. sgra sbyor bam po gnyis pa. The guidelines produced during King Tri Ralpachen’s reign (according to some sources) by several paṇḍitas and lotsāwas — especially paṇḍitas Jinamitra and Dānaśila, and Lotsāwa Zhang Yeshe Dé — establishing the rules of translation.  ↩

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